Until recently the cupboard marked “Percussion Concertos” was quite bare: players of percussion did not inherit great concertos from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is only with the arrival of star percussionists on the scene – notably Evelyn Glennie and Colin Currie, both Scottish – that the cupboard has started to get stocked.
To judge from his diary, Currie has set his mind on populating the percussionists’ repertoire almost single-handedly. His engagements in the UK and US this year include premieres of new concertos by Kalevi Aho and Joe Pereira, plus nearly-new works by Elliott Carter and Einojuhani Rautavaara, all composed with Currie in mind.
Big and bold, Aho’s Sieidi: Concerto for Solo Percussion and Orchestra, a joint commission by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and others, arrived with some thunderous drumming at the Southbank Centre on Wednesday. Whereas some percussion concertos involve the soloist leaping from instrument to instrument like a hurdler, Aho has devised a more elegant solution: his concerto is like a palindrome, with the soloist starting on the right with the djembe, moving along the nine instruments to a tam tam on the left and then making a return journey back to the start.
This gives a visible structure to a work that might not seem to have one. Its music is a ride on the big dipper of extreme contrasts – macho punch-ups with belligerent rhythms (a soundtrack for the next Bond film?), long melodies that float over a barren landscape and simple passages for solo drums like shamanistic ritual. The Finnish Aho has drawn on some obvious, seminal 20th-century works, such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but there is an energy about his concerto that holds the attention. It is a lively, virtuoso piece and Currie made the most of it.
On either side, Osmo Vänskä and the London Philharmonic Orchestra somewhat improbably placed German romantics. The overture to Schumann’s Genoveva made a distinctly tentative opening, though it gained heat later. Brahms’ Symphony No 1 worked up enough pace to see it through some dodgy ensemble and a performance rather shallow in tone and timbre. This was an evening when the percussionist’s art was left free to shine, and Currie’s with it.